Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Genetic Engineering Threatens Life

NEW DELHI, Apr 22 2001 (IPS) - The genetic manipulation of food products could have terrible consequences for the planet and for people, but the corporations producing these transgenic seed varieties are only interested in profits, says noted a biotechnologist.



Genetic engineering (GE) is simply another tool in a process by which transnational corporations in the North create new worldwide monopolies and impose new controls over the lives of people who live in the South.

It is a technology in which a tiny few decide which traits are desirable in our plants and animals and peoples. And it is these decisions that, unbeknownst to most of us, are already placing their products — GE cotton, soy, corn and potatoes — on our markets.

In their rush to sell these products, GE companies are failing to perform adequate testing or ensure that plants and animals in the centers of biological diversity are protected from genetic pollution. The displacement, harm, or outright extinction of plants, animals, or microorganisms as a result of their intervention does not concern them. Nor do the long-term effects on human health.

The real motivation of these companies is not to increase the nutritional value of food or feed the world, as they claim, but to increase their profits.

Movements have sprung up around the world in opposition to this technology. The leaders of many of these groups have formed a network called Diverse Women for Diversity, which met in New Delhi earlier this year for a public panel on genetic engineering and food safety.

These leaders were among the first to propose safety laws relating to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but back then they were not called biosafety laws but Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically-Engineered Organisms or Cells. The legislation was drafted by scientists who understood genetic manipulation and the risks involved — and went into effect in 1989.

These rules were clearly violated when three years ago Monsanto entered India with its genetically engineered ''Bt'' cotton.

Partly as a result of the awareness of activist groups in India and partly because of a legal challenge to the introduction of GE products now pending before the Indian Supreme Court, the sale of Bt cotton is not possible.

However, this is no cause for complacency: large-scale trials of the cotton are currently being conducted in India, and when Monsanto is ready to sell, it will do all it can to manipulate the government. Moreover, it has gone ahead with seed production, despite the fact this is not allowed under trial conditions, which require the destruction of transgenic material for biosafety reasons.

At the annual Indian Science Congress this February, the entire biotech industry arrived essentially to launch their products. One of the ''opportunities'' announced was that Indian judges would be taken to the United States for ''education.''

The meaning of ''education'' is clear in this context. A troubling example of the effect of such ''education'' is the way so-called ''Golden Rice'' — which was genetically engineered to contain vitamin A — is now being marketed as a cure for malnutrition.

There is no mention of the diversity of wild and cultivated plants that women have long used to provide a vitamin A-rich diet, nor of the nutritious greens that have been wiped out by the introduction of this GE rice as a monoculture crop.

The ramifications of the genetic engineering of food extend well into the political sphere. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of peasant families who rely on natural seeds for farming have been pushed out of the market. When you lose your own food technology you lose some of your rights.

Former minister for Environmental Development in Mexico, Ursula Oswald Spring, charges that the transformation of food from a thing of great cultural importance and beauty to a cause of insecurity and fear is nothing less than a crime against humanity and particularly against the original food providers: women.

At the meeting of Diverse Women for Diversity, Oswald warned of negative health impacts, particularly of possible genetic pollution caused by the technologies promoted by the transnationals.

She emphasized that tampering with natural processes could destabilize the entire system. A gene introduced into the open can act like a deadly toxin — and once it is out, it can never be recalled.

The effects have already devastated a group of Canadian farmers. According to Holly Dressel, Canadian journalist and co-author of ''From Naked Ape to Super Species,'' within two growing seasons GE canola contaminated the entire Canadian corn crop through cross-pollination, thus causing the collapse of the Canadian market in Europe, where public resistance to GE foods is very strong. This left farmers with no option but the North American market or dumping the product on the Third World as ''food aid.''

The crossing of species practiced in genetic engineering — for example, the introduction of a pig gene into wheat — can lead to species jumping by bacterial and viral diseases. The fact that both HIV/AIDS and Ebola crossed from other species to humans should make this risk frighteningly clear. Most geneticists who are not on the payroll of large bio-tech companies are deeply concerned by the ramifications.

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